Song Dynasty

Many art historians consider the Sung (or Song) Dynasty the most brilliant of traditional China.
The early emperors made a conscientious effort to develop and promote the Confucian
concept of a meritocracy, based on a professional, centralized bureaucracy of
civil servants identified through the establishment of the civil service examination system.

In the Song Dynasty, aesthetics became more refined and more sophisticated, although the media of expression
(jade and ivory carving, stone scupture, painting, calligraphy, poetry, and especially ceramics) remained pretty constant.
Chinese painting, poetry, and calligraphy were closely intertwined aesthetically.
Art critics termed painting, poetry, and calligraphy the "Three Perfections," (Dragon 126) or as a kind of marriage ofwords and images.
Emperor Huizong devised this elegant calligraphic form which he called "slender gold" for its
"delicate brushwork and sparing use of ink" (Dragon 126). His composition translates,

Mountain birds, proud and unfettered,
Plum blossoms, pollen soft and light,
This painting will be our covenant,
Until a thousand autumns show upon our hoary heads.

(Dragon 126)

Left is a rare sample of the famed painter and calligrapher, Mi Fu. To convey mood and tone, the poet altered his brush strokes and script in this poem, "Sailing on the Wu River" (Met, 66)

(Met 66)

"With a blank scroll before him and an empty wine bowl at his feet, an intoxicated poet-calligrapher sits beneath a willow trea, waiting for inspiration (Dragon 127).



Monumental landscapes dominated the painting genre. In the later Sung period, the Imperial Painting Academy, especially during the reign of Huizong, set standards of excellence (and extravagance) in art. Huizong was himself a gifted landscape painter; one of his most famous paintings, "Finches and Bamboo," is too large to reproduce here in its entirety, but it "reflects the elegant style for which this cultivated emperor and connoisseur was known" (Met, 68-69).

(Hearn, 49)
Under Huizong's patronage, painting reached a "zenith that would be emulated by all subsequent imperial academicians." Sung artists perfected their depiction of religious figures, flowers, birds, and animals with a keen eye to realistic detail (Hearn 24). The charming kitten, by artist Li Ti, shows Sung artists' fascination with nature and detail.


All of the decorative arts flourished during the Song era, but supreme among them reigned ceramics. The growing scarcity of copper led artists and artisans away from working with bronze and to develop more refined and sophisticated objects with clay and to experiment with different combinations of glazes. An examples below from the Ting kiln sites illustrates the "simple, elegant shapes and superb glazes that seamlessly merge into an organic whole" (Hearn 25). A charming porcelain pillow in the shape of a small boy, attesting to the continuing concern with marriage, family life, and the hope that the pillow's owner will have a son (Hearn 46)

(Hearn 46)

The beautiful bowl (right) is from the Ju kiln site. Its "elegant, lobed body and scalloped edges...were undoubtedly influenced by the shape of a lotus blossom" (Hearn 44). Its use was probably to hold a wine pitcher.

(Hearn 44)

No discussion of the aesthetics of the Song Dynasty would be complete without at least a passing reference to the custom of footbinding, which seemed to have become widespread among the elites during this era.


The above link has quite a bit of information on footbinding.
If you want to see more shoes and learn more about "golden lilies," footbinding,
and the exquisitely tiny shoes that girls and young women embroidered
for themselves, google "shoes" and "golden lilies"

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Campos, Melinda. Kowloon Traders. Los Angeles, 1999.(see above)

Halsall, Paul. Chinese Cultural Studies. Brooklyn. (see brooklyn.cuny above)

Hearn, Maxwell. Splendors of Imperial China. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1997.

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Asia. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987.

Smith, Bradley and Wan-go Weng. China: A History in Art. New York: Doubleday and Co., Inc.

What Life Was Like in the Land of the Dragon. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1998.

See also, "China the Beautiful"